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Three years of President Obama, as of today. Count and weep. Just over a year from now Americans will be deciding whether to reelect Barack Obama or… probably Mitt Romney. In the latter case this is to assume that that Mitt, a Mormon and family man – both danger flares — doesn’t get caught up in the minefield known as “charges of sexual harassment,” as has Herman Cain, one of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Study recent photographs of a broken Frenchman named Dominique Strauss-Kahn if you want to be reminded of what such charges can do to a candidate for high office.
Do any of the present candidates, Obama included, offer an answer to America’s crisis – one accelerated by forty years of neo-liberal onslaught? No they don’t, because there is no answer available within the terms and boundaries of the present political system.
The middle class has – at least two thirds of it – crashed into hard times. Americans’ store of value and savings – the house – is worthless; the always pathetic social safety net has eroded. Thirty million Americans are without work or working part-time. Nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs in the United States have disappeared since 2000, and more than 40,000 factories have closed. African-Americans have endured the greatest loss in collective assets in their history. Hispanics have seen their net worth drop by two-thirds. Millions of whites have been pitchforked into desperation. Students emerge from higher education crushed by debt.
This is the mulch that has created the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Its strength lies in the simplicity and truth of its basic message: the few are rich, the many are poor. In terms of its pretensions the capitalist system has failed. There was amusing confirmation of this in Friday’s New York Times, which carried a big article by Jason deParle, Robert Gebeloff and Sabrina Tavernise headlined “Bleak Portrait of Poverty is Off the Mark, Experts Say.” The story focused on the fact that the official government poverty measure “overlooks hundreds of billions of dollars the needy receive in food stamps and other benefits”, also “the similarly formidable amounts they lose to taxes and medical care.”
There threatens to be a new government measure, long promised, which in current political conditions will no doubt perform the sort of chicanery practiced by the Clinton administration when the Consumer Price Index inflation measure dictating such important items as Social Security payments suddenly had energy and food removed from the basket.
But if we’re talking about capitalism as the system that best addresses the collective needs of a society, the issue is whether the “free market” can deliver the goods to keep millions of people from starvation or death from exposure without huge government outlays, and the answer is obviously No. Michael Doliner has an amusing piece on the weekend’s website addressing the conservative absurdities and contradictions on this issue of “the free market.”
Writing these lines at the start of November, after digesting CounterPunch writers’ daily reports from the national OWS battlefield (Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, Oscar Grant Plaza on Oakland, kindred venues in Austin, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Nashville, Portland…), my eyes flicker across the world map to Greece, and my heart beats faster. Here surely is the core class conflict of our times, brilliantly evoked by the OWSers, in starkest form: finance capital v. the have-less and have-nots.
With Greece an optimist can savor the whiff of a pre-revolutionary situation and a pessimist can seize on a central truth about the European Union, that with each year that passes it is more visibly the Iron Heel of international capital. The one thing the EU’s Iron Heel cannot countenance is any formally expressed demonstration of popular rejection. Last week it was the threat of a popular referendum on the Papandreou coalition’s submission to the Iron Heel in Greece. In years gone by there were the referenda in Ireland, France and Portugal, all overwhelming in their rejection of the emerging contours of the EU, all instantly overridden and dismissed by the EU’s oligarchs.
I’ve no doubt that if by chance the left in Greece today were to evict the local political agents of the international banks, it would not be long before a NATO intervention, covert and then overt, was under way, using the usual arsenal of assassination, drone attacks and armed support for whatever security forces do not defect to the left.
Having briefly tasted batons and pepper spray, OWSers should know that when capital feels it is being pushed to the wall, it will stop at nothing to crush any serious challenge. The cop puts away his smile. The indulgent mayor imposes a curfew. “Exemplary” sentences are handed down. The prisons fill up. The FBI dusts off the Cointelpro blueprint. Organized repression can only be defeated by organized resistance, nationwide. How to mount this is the OWSers’ long-term challenge. These are very early days in the formation of the movement. In Oakland, on Wednesday, OWS staged a rally calling for a General Strike. That was optimism of the intelligence. That was most certainly thinking along the right lines.
And Now, A Quiet Word… ABOUT OUR FUNDRAISER
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Our Latest Newsletter
We offer two terrific pieces, by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Fred Gardner. A distinguished anthropologist, Scheper-Hughes is one of our favorite writers. Indeed your CounterPunch editors listed her Death Without Weeping in its top 100 non-fiction books published in English in the 20th Century. A few months ago we ran her amazing investigation of the international trade in body parts. This time she contributes a very powerful piece – in part autobiographical – on the slow death of the Roman Catholic Church, centered on the Vatican’s appalling response to the disclosures of the past few years of the sexual predations of Catholic priests on children, among them indigenous peoples.
On September 23, 2011, Scheper-Hughes writes, human rights lawyers and former clerical sex abuse victims filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, asking for an investigation to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and three of his top officials, including William Levada, a cardinal, and the former bishop of the diocese of San Francisco, for crimes against humanity.
“The request to war crimes court may seem theatrical. The Vatican did not ratify the Rome statute that created the court, although both Germany (Benedict’s birthplace) and Italy (home of the Vatican) have done so. The ICC only has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed after 2002. Nonetheless, the International Criminal Court has agreed to examine the papers, and a spokesperson has said that the case has merit.
So, finally, what’s a former Catholic to do when her Church is corrupt and moribund? Today, the defections are not just of unhappy priests and nuns, but of the global Catholic community at large. Churches are closing in European and in American cities. The will and the desire to fight the Vatican are mostly gone. The damage, beyond the current sex scandal, to women’s bodies, the indifference to maternal and infant mortalities, to the populations at risk of the AIDS epidemic, especially in Catholic parts of Africa, are too much to bear.
“Some former Catholics take solace in other spiritual traditions. Given the animistic quality of Catholic ancestor worship, some former Catholics embrace a cult of everyday saints, virgins, and martyrs, adding Steven Biko, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Dorothy Day, and Harvey Milk to their older devotion to Saint Joan, San Antonio, and Saint Francis of Assisi. Others look to a green theology based on reverence for earth, and sky and sea, and all the critters that slither and crawl, walk and swim. Some, like Paul Farmer, continue along the Vatican-savaged remains of a once vibrant liberation theology, a theology of hope.
“I am grieved and not relieved by my loss of a faith that once gave beauty, richness and fullness to my life. The secular humanism of anthropology offers an alternative form of discipleship, built around the practice of studied observation, contemplation and reflection. I know that anthropology is a powerful tool capable of taming unruly emotions, replacing disgust with respect, ignorance with understanding, hatred with empathy, and a practice of compassionate and modest witnessing to human sorrows. But it is cold comfort for the former believer, when the mystery is gone and with it the light has gone out of one’s soul.”
Don’t miss this marvelous essay.
Also don’t miss Fred Gardner’s contribution to our ongoing series on Obama’s record. Gardner examines the pledges on medical marijuana he made on the campaign trail and his substantive record thereafter and the current onslaught of the Justice Department on medical marijuana dispensaries in California. Gardner’s question to the leaders of the marijuana reform movement: Did they really read his lips? Did they “over-read” and too optimistically interpret what the candidate was saying.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com